YANGON, Myanmar – Kachin ethnic rebels battling the army in northern Myanmar say they shot down a government helicopter, but the army says it crashed due to engine failure.
An emailed announcement from the Kachin guerrillas says they shot down the helicopter late Friday as heavy fighting raged.
Deputy Information Minister and President’s Spokesman Ye Htut on his Facebook page confirmed the crash of a government helicopter but said engine failure was to blame.
It was the first helicopter crash since the military launched air strikes against the Kachin in the last week of December.
Both the government and the guerrillas have made misleading statements in the past about the fighting, which is in a remote area difficult for independent observers to access.
If the helicopter was shot down, it would represent a major loss of face for the government and complicate efforts to de-escalate the fighting.
Ye Htut said a helicopter that left the government’s air base in the Kachin capital Myitkyina “to carry out administrative activities made an emergency landing due to engine trouble, 20 miles (48 kilometers) south of Myitkyina.”
“Search and rescue continues and casualties cannot be immediately confirmed,” he wrote. The area where he said the helicopter crashed is not in the immediate vicinity of most of the main fighting.
Another senior official, speaking anonymously because he is not authorized to release military information, identified the helicopter as an Mi-35, which is a Soviet-made gunship. He said two pilots were on board.
The Kachin, like Myanmar’s other ethnic minorities, have long sought greater autonomy from the central government. They are the only major ethnic rebel group that has not reached a truce with President Thein Sein’s elected government, which came to power in 2011 after almost five decades of military rule.
Intermittent fighting escalated last month when the rebels rejected a government demand that they allow supply convoys to reach an army base. The Kachin headquarters at Laiza near the border with China and a government base are close to each other, and access to both is by the same road.
The Kachin staged attacks on government convoys trying to get through to the base, saying the supplies included ammunition that could be used to try to take their headquarters.
The army claims its actions are in self-defense, a response to the Kachin blocking the road. They have seized at least one of the guerrillas’ hilltop posts by the road.